durer Each year at St. Philip’s church, we celebrate our patronal feast of St. Philip and St. James. I wrote a small pamphlet about him. It’s not especially original; most of the information can be found here, here, and in Leon Morris’s comentary on John.1 When I began to look for a depiction of St. Philip the Apostle, apart from a few icons of varying quality, I found little. Except, that is, this glorious engraving by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Made in 1526 (possibly earlier) and just 122mm by 76mm, is the fifth and last sheet of Dürer’s unfinished series of Apostles. The handling is very bold and shows the skill due to the absolute command of the graver. The long sweeping lines which marked Dürer’s earlier work reappear, especially in the background.
“Despite the brilliance of his paintings, he is the greatest master of woodcut and copper-engraving, achieving a technical mastery and range of expression never seen before or excelled since. [. . .] The influence of his prints was enormous; not only were they immediate and memorably dramatic in their narrative power, so that they astonish by their vivid imagery and layers of iconographic meaning; they were easily transported, cheap, and therefore readily available.”2 The great white mantle of the engraving of St Philip so pleased Dürer that he used it again in his painted panels of Four Apostles in 1526. durer_apostlesThe Four Holy Men. 1526.

Dürer’s accomplishments included some magnificent paintings, portraits, and altarpieces. But his greatest achievement lay in his graphic work, his woodcuts, his engravings, and even some etchings, and in a large number of brilliant drawings. In addition, he wrote some of the earliest works in the German language dealing with human proportions and perspective, with the intention of providing a sound foundation for art.

In his own day, Dürer was a man of great fame. [. . .] For the centuries to come his fame seldom waned; his graphic work was collected, many of his figures imitated, and his books used as textbooks. He became famous almost overnight when he published his Apocalypse in 1498.

Dürer’s breadth and depth of subject matter are truly unique. He depicts biblical stories, the lives of saints, historical events, fashion, elements of social life, classical mythology or allegory, animals, plants, heraldry, as well as making portraits, landscapes, fantastic ornamental borders, and even depictions of dreams. No other artist ever treated such a wide variety of subjects while at the same time introducing many innovations. [. . .]

[T]he fifteenth century had seen the introduction of naturalism, an attempt to respect reality as it was seen, and introducing depth and space. In Italy we call this the Renaissance. In the north its center was Flanders, the home of great Flemish artists like van Eyck and van der Weyden and other Flemish masters wrongly called “primitives.” Dürer knew both streams, felt their influence, and in many ways even furthered their achievements.3

1. Leon Morris. The Gospel according to John. Grand Rapid Eerdmans, 1971

2. P & L Murray The Oxford companion to Christian art and architecture, OUP, 1998, pp.146-147.

3. Dürer’s Apocalypse: an artist’s message to his contemporaries” in HR Rookmaaker The creative gift: essays on art and the Christian life. Westchester: Cornerstone, 1981 (A collection of essays published after Rookmaaker’s death in 1977.)